Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Wild



I was worried when I heard Reese Witherspoon say in interviews that she decided to make a film of Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild:  From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Vintage, 2012) because she was looking for properties with strong female leads.  Although Strayed would qualify as a strong, female character, I would hate to think of a book as a property or as simply a sound career move for an actress looking for an Oscar-worthy part.  Making a film should be making art for art’s sake, but maybe I am being too much of a snob.  Still, I refuse to see a film of a book I love, and in the case of Wild I’ve refused and won’t because I do love the book.

In all its constituent parts, Wild is a standard mid-stream reflection on a life in crisis.  Like Dante in his Dark Wood, Strayed finds herself in her late 20s, dabbling in heroin and self-destructive behaviors, facing a disintegrating marriage, and most significantly, absorbing the death of her mother.  It is the past that has crippled her present.  Without previous experience or knowledge about what it takes to hike such a long and grueling path, she decides to put everything on the line and take a chance on a journey of self-discovery.  This is what we do when we have nothing left to lose because everything of value, even our souls, has already been surrendered.

Her mother figures into the narrative throughout the book, often appearing in other forms—animals, ghosts, shadows.  Strayed attempts to come to terms with how she was raised, the horrors, the disappointments, the paths traveled to survive not for what is best for the future but what is best among limited options in the present.  Thoreau’s line about living a life of quiet desperation comes to mind.  Her mother dies in her 40s of cancer, and with her end come the heartbreaking moments:  her mother cannot put on her own socks and do other things for herself because she is in so much pain so Strayed must do them for her; her mother moves through the house saying goodbye to her pets and meager possessions before entering the hospital for the last time; her mother’s language reduced to single words because she lacks the strength to say more, even when Strayed tells her she loves her.  “It hadn’t occurred to me that my mother would die,” Strayed writes.  “Until she was dying, the thought had never entered my mind.  She was monolithic and insurmountable, the keeper of my life.”

After she is gone, Strayed dreams of her, and in many of the dreams, nightmares really, she is forced to murder her over and over again at her mother’s request as she begs for relief from the pain and suffering.  These are bizarre and difficult visions for the reader to accept:  “I tied her to a tree in our front yard and poured gasoline over her head, then lit her on fire.  I made her run down the dirt road that passed by the house we’d built and then ran her over with my truck.  I dragged her body, caught on a jagged piece of metal underneath, until it came loose, and then I put my truck in reverse and ran her over again.  I took a miniature baseball bat and beat her to death with it, slow and hard and sad.”  These dreams are not nightmares, but are made even more horrific and real because they seem rendered “in plain, ordinary light.”

Strayed’s journey is harrowing throughout.  She focuses that “plain, ordinary light” on every part of the story, from her mother’s death to the addiction to the self-destructive behaviors to the Pacific Crest Trail itself.  She faces her fears because she knows that any surrendering to that fear will doom the journey.  She cannot give in, she cannot go back, she must survive.  She writes:  “The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do.  Now there was no escape or denial.  No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay.”  I am reminded of Ulysses longing for the relief of home in Ithaca, of Dante and Virgil in the Inferno struggling to pass through to the Purgatorio and into the Paradiso.  She is changed and forever altered by her journey, her very vision of a self in the mirror becomes strangely different, someone else who quickly becomes who she is now.  She is recovered but in that recovery becomes a transfigured entity in body and soul.

On her journey, she meets those who act as shamans or spiritual guides, often in the face of her own skepticism.  A woman in a public bathroom approaches her while she is brushing her teeth in an almost comical scene.  Strayed thanks her, toothpaste dribbling down her chin, when the woman compliments her on the feather stuck in her pack given to her by another hiker on the trail.  The strange woman identifies the feather as from “a raven or a crow, a symbol of the void.”  When Strayed questions her about this void, the woman says:  “It’s a good thing…It’s a place where things are born, where they begin.”  The awkwardness evaporates for Strayed and the reader with knowing the history and what led to the journey.  There could be no greater void than Strayed’s life of loss and self-destruction.

In the chapter called “Range of Light,” a term coined by John Muir, she meets a man named Paco who passes her a joint, and who rightly identifies her journey as a “spirit walk.”  He gives her another talisman:  a Bob Marley tee shirt.  “I want you to have it,” he tells her, “because I see that you walk with the spirits of the animals, with the spirits of the earth and sky.”  Again, there is something dead on and chilling about these encounters.

Her absent father is not without his own impact on her life.  In the midst of a crisis on the trail—her boots were too small and she contemplates walking for a time in sandals to save her feet—she remembers a visit to a an astrologer when she was twenty-three.  After the usual mumbo-jumbo of such encounters with the often phony occult, the woman cuts to the bone.  She tells Strayed that her father was “wounded,” much like a Vietnam vet is wounded, but he had never been to Vietnam.  Strayed, the woman tells her, is wounded like he is, in the same place.  “That’s what fathers do if they don’t heal their wounds.  They wound their children in the same place.”  This inspires an epiphany of sorts for Strayed giving her a key to unlock her family life.  Then, the astrologer drops the bomb:  “To heal the wound your father made, you’re going to have to get on that horse and ride into battle like a warrior.”  The sandals, the hike, the self-immolation—all of this is her war into which she must ride.

The book is indeed one of disturbing images, some that haunt me still even after the book has been finished.  One harrowing story is told in flashback when she and her brother and ex-husband must put down her mother’s horse, Lady.  They cannot afford a vet, so they decide to do it themselves with a gun.  The brother is the trigger man, and he shoots the horse between the eyes, but even with a hole blown into her skull, the horse stands.  It takes repeated shots until they run out of ammunition before their bloody work has any effect on the animal.  It is a tremendously horrific scene, and one I could not forget.

Another moment of strangeness told in flashback is when the siblings spread their mother’s ashes.  The stone they purchased has her mother’s words carved on it:  “I am with you always.”  They lay down the stone and spread the ashes on the earth around it, but Strayed keeps a few of the larger pieces of burnt bone in her hand.  She refuses to release them, and in the end, puts them in her mouth and swallows them whole.

As the trail ends and Strayed prepares to return to her life, she finds the world a different place, a perfect organ for rebirth, for one to emerge transfigured.  “There is no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another,” she writes.  “What leads to what.  What destroys what.  What causes what to flourish or die or take another course.”

This is a deep and soul-wrenching book.  It made me think of Emerson and Thoreau, Lewis and Clark, and the writing of Gretel Ehrlich.  Would it make a good film?  I would not presume to judge without seeing the finished product but I will say that much of what happens to Strayed happens in the interior of conscience, in her reflections as she walks the path north from the Mojave desert to Oregon and finally, to the aptly named Bridge of the Gods.  It is in the books she reads on her trek.  It is in the memories and reflections on what was and would never be again, over what is lost and found on our journeys.  And like Ulysses arriving at Ithaca, when we arrive we should expect nothing to be the same again.  The journey has been its own reward, not the arrival, not the destination itself.  We must be brave and face the demons, the fall from grace, our own deep, dark night in the woods.  For we are always dying, moment by moment from the time of our birth, but in the end all that matters is how we have lived in our brief flicker of light.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Just War Theory in an Age of Extremism

Saint Augustine by Antonio Rodriguez


Over the summer and into the fall, Americans watched, horrified, as the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant known as ISIS beheaded journalists, aid workers and soldiers from several countries in what the members decreed was a command in the Koran:  “So when you meet those who disbelieve [in battle], strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer] favor afterwards or ransom [them] until the war lays down its burdens.” (Qur’an, 47:4)  The surreal videos were posted on social media and usually did not show the actual moment of beheading, but included a lengthy speech by the knife-wielding jihadi before the murder, and the graphic carnage immediately following.  Although the material was quickly removed from most websites, enough people saw the films in the west to incite widespread anger and outrage, especially when parents and spouses of many victims had pleaded with ISIS before the murders to release their loved ones unharmed.  These acts committed by Islamic extremists present new challenges to the world because unlike previous conflicts, many of these perpetrators are rogue actors or members of terrorist cells not fighting under the banner of a specific state or government.  It is, as we now understand, immensely difficult to declare war on an individual or a rogue group operating within a country with whom we are not, technically, at war.  We saw this difficulty play out with our pursuit of the Taliban and Al Qaida in Afghanistan.  In light of this new threat, and because of the long history of conflict between Christians and Muslims, it is beneficial to re-examine the Christian perspective on what constitutes a just war, and to ascertain if Just War Theory as outlined by Augustine and the U.S. Catholic Bishops in their 1983 statement is applicable to acts of war against a terrorist or violent extremist group in the world today, and if the theory might offer some justification for pursuing these perpetrators and bringing them to an end, even if that end is annihilation.

The document, The Challenge of Peace, was written during the last decade of the Cold War and concerned itself with the rise of nuclear arsenals in America and in the Soviet Union as well as the proliferation of those weapons systems to other countries around the world.  Five American Catholic bishops led by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin authored the document after careful consultation with religious, military, and government officials.  The writing was not without precedent:  the bishops based their teaching on documents from the Second Vatican Council, specifically, Gaudium et Spes:  Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965); the writings of Augustine; and of course, the Bible.  John Paul II, the pope at the time the bishops gathered to write the document, also had a profound effect on the drafting and revising of the final document.  The pope and the bishops wished to reassure Catholics concerned about a nuclear holocaust.  It was a time when both the United States and the Soviet Union had stockpiled enough weapons to blow up key strategic targets around the world several times over.  The bishops wrote that the world was “at a moment of crisis, the effects of which are evident in people’s lives.”  Most Americans, and most likely many Soviets, believed nuclear weapons were the most dangerous threat facing the world at the time.

Of course, it must be noted that America was the first country to develop and deploy a nuclear weapon on the field of battle.  On August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb nicknamed, “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan, following up on August 9 with a second device, “Fat Man,” dropped on Nagasaki.  The two detonations killed close to 250,000 people, many of them civilians.  In any discussion of Just War Theory, this killing of noncombatants will be a significant consideration in determining what constitutes a just war.  To date, America is the only country to have used these weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, on an enemy during conflict.  The bishops responded to this fact by writing:  “As Americans, citizens of the nation which was the first to produce atomic weapons, which has been the only one to use them and which today is one of the handful of nations capable of decisively influencing the course of the nuclear age, we have grave human, moral and political responsibilities to see that a ‘conscious choice’ is made to save humanity.”

The bishops agreed that the nuclear threat “transcends religious, cultural, and national boundaries…” and that “The Catholic tradition on war and peace is a long and complex one, reaching from the Sermon on the Mount to the statements of Pope John Paul II.”  Specifically, the bishops referred to something first mentioned in Gaudium et Spes:  the Church has a duty to scrutinize the “signs of the times” and interpret them “in the light of the gospel.”  It was this scrutiny that influenced the drafting of the document in 1983.  The bishops clearly stated, as did John Paul II, that the world needed “fresh applications of traditional moral principles” of Catholic teaching on war and peace.  The bishops wanted to give American Catholics something concrete that included elements taken from theology, philosophy, and biblical study that would hopefully transform the world while assuring people that a nuclear holocaust could be prevented.  The key to this transformation was a return to the concept of a transcendent God and the dignity of the human being.  Indeed, every step must be taken to protect the dignity of those created in God’s image and likeness.  Because nuclear war threatened to destroy great swaths of humanity, the Church was tasked with urging the removal of the weapons and stopping the proliferation of them across the globe.

To do this, the bishops wrote that “Catholic teaching on peace and war has had two purposes:  to help Catholics form their consciences and to contribute to the public policy debate about the morality of war.”  The teaching was directed at two audiences, one religious and the other secular.  However, what was happening in the world meant that the world’s nations and their people were increasingly divided and therefore, there was no central authority, much less a unified ideology between the east and the west.  The concept of the communist state was in direct opposition to the religious ideology of Catholics, and this antithesis had been a subject for encyclicals and Catholic social teaching going back to the late 19th century.  The bishops placed their hope that these divisions could be overcome in a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:  “It is [Christ] who is our peace, and who made the two of us one by breaking down the barrier of hostility that kept us apart.  In his own flesh he abolished the law with its commands and precepts, to create in himself one new man from us who had been two and to make peace, reconciling both of us to God in one body through his cross, which put that enmity to death” (Eph. 2: 14-16).

The passage must be considered symbolically because Paul’s letter originated in a completely different cultural milieu.  “It is he who is our peace” is actually a fragment of an early Christian hymn that was most likely inserted into the text of Paul’s letter at a later date, according to The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Prentice Hall, 1990)  The “barrier of hostility” is a reference to the wall separating Gentiles from the inner court of the Jerusalem temple, and the word “enmity” indicates that the imagery was meant to indicate the end of ethnic hostility.  Paul speaks of humanity as flawed when he writes of creating a “new man” from the one marked by the sin of Adam and therefore not redeemed in Christ.  This “new man” would be a combination of Jew and Gentile, reflecting the view of Christians as a single body from what had been two.  It is highly unlikely that the bishops were na├»ve enough to believe that the Soviet Union and the United States could ever unite as one people.  The reference is undoubtedly to the need for Catholics worldwide to unite, and possibly even the followers of world religions to come together as one.  In any case, this is, as of this date, an unrealized dream in any interpretation, and more so now with the conflict between Islam and the west.

What is clear from the bishops’ writing is that a new theology of peace needed to be formulated, and that any such formulation must be within the purview of the Church’s pastoral ministry and contain a clear message of hope.  The only way to combat the fear among people of the world over the possibility of nuclear war meant constructing a concrete path to end, or at least mitigate, the threat.  That is what the bishops hoped to do.

The first strand of this new formulation of peace meant returning to Scripture.  However, the bishops felt that three factors had to be considered:  peace meant different things at different times and in different contexts; the biblical texts themselves were written over a vast swath of history and therefore reflected cultures, events, and histories vastly different from the 20th century global village; these texts described God’s influence on the world and his “intervention in history” rather than a “specific treatise on war and peace.”  If these three factors could be reconciled in a coherent fashion, the writing would be deemed a success.

The Old Testament accounts of war and peace mostly involved God as a warrior with human beings as his foot soldiers.  When the tribes won, God was obviously on their side.  The losers had somehow failed to keep covenant, or had betrayed God in some way thereby raising his ire.  Indeed, everything in the Old Testament had to be processed through the lens of Israel’s relationship to God, according to the bishops.  They also wanted to take into account man’s changing relationship to his all-powerful creator, namely that as human intellect evolved, God became a deeper and more layered entity, “less dominant” as a warrior and more “profound” and “complex” as a divine figure.  The bishops found evidence for this interpretation in Leviticus 26: 3-8:  “If you live in accordance with my precepts and are careful to observe my commandments, I will give you rain in due season so that the land will bear its crops, and the trees their fruit; your threshing will last till vintage time, and your vintage till the time for sowing, and you will have food to eat in abundance, so that you may dwell securely in your land.  I will establish peace in the land, that you may lie down to rest without anxiety.  I will rid the country of ravenous beasts, and keep the sword of war from sweeping across your land.  You will rout your enemies and lay them low with your sword.  Five of you will put your foes to flight, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand of them till they are cut down by your sword.”

The passage strikes a balance between a God of war, a God of the harvest, and the God of the Covenant.  The imagery of the passage promises protection from any firestorms raging across the land, something audiences at the time of the bishops’ writing feared in the aftermath of nuclear holocaust.  In short, war was a product of breaking covenant with God, of sin and betrayal.  War was punishment.  Peace would come when people kept true to their word and remained faithful to their God.  And if the peace could not be achieved now, it was promised in the future after the end times, an eschatological peace.

The bishops draw clear distinctions between Old and New Testament writing about war and peace.  They characterize Old Testament peace as “a gift from God, inclusive of all creation, grounded in salvation and covenantal fidelity, inextricably bound up with justice.”  Whereas, in the New Testament, the warrior God is replaced by a more loving and nurturing Jesus Christ.  The references to war are of a preparatory nature, meaning that one must be prepared for what is to come.  When swords do appear, as in Luke 22: 49-51 when some of the disciples draw weapons to prevent Jesus’ arrest and injure a high priest’s servant, Jesus quickly rejects weapons and violence, and heals the servant’s wound.  In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he tells early Christians to “put on the armor of God in order to withstand the onslaughts of the evil one.  The very armor with which God clothes himself in the OT (Isa 11: 5; 59: 17) is to be the armament of Christians,” says the New Jerome.  This is the “armor of God…the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit…” according to the bishops.  Inherent in this change of philosophies from the Old to New Testament is the recognition of the radical ideas of Jesus.  He knew his message was a complete reversal of tradition, and therefore, families might find themselves “divided as if by a sword.  Hence, the Gospels tell us that Jesus said he came not to bring peace but rather the sword,” as recounted in Matthew 10:34.  Jesus called for love beyond family and friends, a love that had to encompass even one’s enemies.  The bishops refer to Matthew’s gospel where Jesus says:  “But what I say to you is:  offer no resistance to injury.  When a person strikes you on the right cheek turn and offer him the other” (5: 39).

But this is not to say that Jesus did not have a violent side, the bishops point out, like when he attacked the moneychangers in the temple (Mt. 21: 12-17).  Although Jesus refuses to take up arms to defend himself when the men come to arrest him, he cannot escape the violence of his world.  His death is especially brutal and bloody, a capital punishment reserved for the most grievous crimes.  Yet, as the bishops point out, he does not hesitate to cry out for forgiveness for his killers at the moment of his death.  The bishops remind us that “To follow Jesus Christ implies a continual conversation in one’s own life as one seeks to act in ways which are consonant with the justice, forgiveness, and love of God’s reign.”  To be like Jesus is the ultimate challenge, and continues to be so today in the face of so much irrational violence.  However, the bishops write that “it is our task to seek for ways in which to make the forgiveness, justice and mercy and love of God visible in a world where violence and enmity are too often the norm.”  They go on to say that “we are a pilgrim people in a world marked by conflict and injustice.”

At this point, the bishops transition into a thorough discussion of Augustine’s Just War Theory.  This means looking not at the world as we want it to be, but the world as it is.  “The view is stark,” they tell us, “ferocious new means of warfare threatening savagery surpassing that of the past, deceit, subversion, terrorism, genocide.”  Countries must be allowed to defend themselves only if every peaceful settlement option has been exhausted first.  This is the Christian’s “inalienable obligation.”

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) is considered a church father from the Patristic era.  The Catholic Encyclopedia describes him as an important bridge between Platonists and early Christian theologians, as Augustine, in different periods of his life, fit into both schools.  He was a convert to Christianity, and felt wisdom to be the only spouse he needed.

Among the many startling pieces of philosophy and theology he formulated and wrote about in his lifetime was his development of a Just War Theory rooted in several key precepts:  Christians must first, do no harm to the neighbor, which would seem to exclude all acts of war, however this leads to the second key idea which is that how we treat our enemies is a reflection of how we love our neighbor.  Another key precept is that taking even a single life is something that should be considered with intensive deliberation.  Augustine considered the consequences of sin in history as the root of war.  He considered warfare a tragedy in political society, and he bemoaned the overweening ambition that led human beings to engage in mortal combat.  However, he also recognized that evil must be restrained, and the innocent must be protected.  Therefore, when innocents are in peril, the precept to do no harm to the neighbor is rescinded.  An enemy bent on destruction of innocents must be restrained.  This could be extrapolated to governments who must often act in self-defense to protect innocent civilians or the threat to security and well-being.

Just War Theory can be divided into three areas:  jus ad bellum (justice before war); jus in bello (justice in war); and jus post bellum (justice after war).  Within these three divisions are moral guides for behavior during conflict.  Under jus ad bellum, the following stipulations must be met:  the cause must be just, war must be the last resort after all other options have been exhausted, the action must be declared by the appropriate authorities, the actors must possess the right intention, and have a reasonable chance of success, and in the end, the outcome must be proportional to the means used.  In The Challenge of Peace, the bishops expound on each of these stipulations.  For just cause, they write that “war is permissible only to confront ‘a real and certain danger,’ i.e., to protect innocent life, to preserve conditions necessary for decent human existence, and to basic human rights.”  Under the competent authority provision, the use of force must be taken up only for the common good and declared only by responsible government authorities.  This corresponds with the American idea that the president cannot declare war by himself, but instead must seek an act of Congress to deploy troops to a battlefield.  After war is declared, some thought must be given to how the war will be waged.  This is known as comparative justice, meaning that the rightness of a particular side must be considered, specifically, what values are in question or considered important enough to wage war on another party leading to casualties.  The bishops write that “Every party to a conflict should acknowledge the limits of its ‘just cause’ and the consequent requirement to use only limited means in pursuit of its objectives.  Far from legitimizing a crusade mentality”—something with which Christians and Muslims have been concerned with for centuries—“comparative justice is designed to relativize absolute claims and to restrain the use of force even in a ‘justified’ conflict.”  In this “justified conflict,” the only proper goal is peace and reconciliation, and for the conflict to be justified, all other alternatives must have been explored and exhausted.

One area within jus ad bellum is problematic, and that is the stipulation of probability of success.  As outlined in Augustine’s work and the writing of the bishops, this means that war should never be waged in the face of hopeless causes or when the outcome would be futile.  On the surface, this might seem like an argument that a nation should only wage war when victory is assured.  In reality, there are always uncertainties in the success or failure of the conflict.  And some conflicts involve values and ideas, as well as threats, worth fighting for and against, even if the situation seems hopeless.  However, when much is at stake—a livelihood, a culture, a religious belief, indeed a the very lives of innocent people—this stipulation could be suspended and the battle, even a hopeless one, must be fought.  Finally under jus ad bellum, the concept of proportional response must be observed, meaning that “the damage to be inflicted and the costs incurred by war must be proportionate to the good expected by taking up arms.”  In fact, all such damage—on the nations involved and the world community—must be considered before war can be declared.

Proportionality also plays a role in jus in bello, or justice in war.  In fact, two principles are important to consider:  proportionality and discrimination.  There is great potential in war that circumstances will explode from a regional conflict into a worldwide global disaster.  Therefore, a nation cannot respond to the aggression of another nation without considering the magnitude and far-reaching effects of that response.  So the response must be measured and proportional to the aggression, and the act of war, including bombings, destruction of infrastructure, civilian casualties, must never be indiscriminately waged.  The question must be asked—what are the objectives of this military response?  It is the ethical debate: do the ends justify the means?  Or, is it the deontological idea of the means determining the end result?  For example, should a nation resort to torture to gain information crucial to the conflict?  Getting the information might mean saving hundreds, even thousands of lives.  Or, does a nation take the higher ground and refuse to violate a prisoner’s basic human rights thereby foregoing intelligence that might prevent deaths and defeat?  Remember as stated above, Augustine’s primary anchor of his theory is that Christians must do no harm to neighbors, and in war, how the enemy is treated is a test of that idea.  The bishops believe that “no end can justify means evil in themselves.”

It is interesting to note that the bishops did not discuss the final area of Just War Theory in their document.  In jus post bellum, or justice after war, the punishment meted out to the defeated must be proportional as well.  Alexander Moseley writes:  “The principle of discrimination should be employed to avoid imposing punishment on innocents or non-combatants; the rights or traditions of the defeated deserve respect; the claims of victory should be proportional to the war’s character; compensatory claims should be tempered by the principles of discrimination and proportionality; and, controversially, the need to rehabilitate or re-educate an aggressor should also be considered.”  He goes on to say that just because a nation is victorious does not mean that “unduly harsh” or “punitive” measures can be imposed on those were defeated.

Why do the bishops not address jus post bellum issues in their document?  Possibly because the goal as stated from the start of Just War Theory is to reestablish peace so that “disordered ambitions” are kept in check and evil is restrained while the innocents are protected.  These are the only objectives after war has concluded.  The bishops do spend a considerable portion, approximately the last third of the document, discussing the “Shaping of a Peaceful World,” which begins, “Preventing nuclear war is a moral imperative; but the avoidance of war, nuclear or conventional, is not a sufficient conception of international relations today.  Nor does it exhaust the content of Catholic teaching.”  This section comes after a number of pages dedicated to all facets of nuclear warfare and concepts related to nuclear weapons, like that of mutually assured destruction.  The bishops write:  “Today, the destructive potential of the nuclear powers threatens the human person, the civilization we have slowly constructed, and even the created order itself…At the center of the new evaluation of the nuclear arms race is a recognition of two elements:  the destructive potential of nuclear weapons, and the stringent choices which the nuclear age poses for both politics and morals.”

The 21st century so far has been one of terrorism and the suicide bomber.  These are individuals and organized groups of extremists who are committed to waging jihad on the west.  The questions continue to plague nations around the globe:  how is this enemy, without allegiance to a particular country, to be engaged and neutralized?  Islam is not a violent or murderous faith, we are told, yet the ones who detonate the roadside bomb, behead the journalist, and fly planes into our skyscrapers profess a faith that looks exactly like Islam, albeit an extremist version.  Does the Just War Theory apply to waging war on individuals or organizations?  Of most critical concern is the rise of ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic state now occupying parts of Iraq and Syria.

Under the question of just cause, a threat must be a real and certain danger.  In their words and deeds, the members of ISIS and other terrorist organizations profess their desire to destroy America, its people and their way of life.  Given the very public murders, the events of September 11th, and the maiming and killing of military personnel, the threat is genuine and the intent of the individuals involved certain and deadly.  ISIS, Al Qaida, and other terrorist groups have declared they will not end the attacks until America is vanquished, therefore, the U.S. has no recourse but to work toward the annihilation of these groups.  Since the jihadists have vowed to fight to the death, this annihilation is unavoidable, but the probability of success, meaning to rid the world completely of this threat, may never be accomplished.  The War on Terror may be an endless war, and this is problematic.  Recently, Pope Francis has stepped into the breach to try to encourage peace, but even he has stated that “the use of force can be justified to stop ‘unjust aggressors’ such as Islamic State militants.”  Many different news outlets, both religious and secular, reported the pope’s words:  “In these cases where there is unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor.  I underscore the verb ‘stop’; I don’t say bomb, make war—stop him.  The means by which he may be stopped should be evaluated.  To stop the unjust aggressor is licit, but we nevertheless need to remember how many times, using this excuse of stopping an unjust aggressor, the powerful nations have dominated other peoples, made a real war of conquest.  A single nation cannot judge how to stop this, how to stop an unjust aggressor.  After the Second World War, there arose the idea of the United Nations.  That is where we should discuss:  ‘Is there an unjust aggressor?  It seems there is.  How do we stop him?’ But only that, nothing more.”

Francis is actually in line with the bishops writing in 1983.  They believed the U.N. had the best potential to bring about world order and increase development possibilities for all people.  The bishops were referring back to the words of Pope John Paul II as well as the encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) and the documents of the Second Vatican Council where the United Nations was also singled out as the best hope for the preservation of peace and human dignity.  Pope John XXIII professed his desire that the U.N. and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights “may become ever more equal to the magnitude and nobility of its tasks, and may the time come as quickly as possible when every human being will find therein an effective safeguard for the rights which derive directly from his dignity as a person, and which are therefore universal, inviolable and inalienable rights.”

As for Pope Francis’ words about an “unjust aggressor,” there is no greater act of violent, bloody aggression than to take a man, bound and kneeling, and decapitate him.  The perpetrators have given themselves over to what Augustine called the love of violence that war invokes, and therefore, it is indisputable that a war against ISIS is a just war.  Francis gives us one admonition that must be considered:  who is the competent authority to declare this war?  It is not for America or the American government alone to declare.  It is not for the countries in the region where these atrocities are taking place to declare.  Clearly, as Francis, the bishops in 1983, and the Second Vatican Council have said, it is the responsibility of the world, the United Nations, possibly, but indeed the nations around the world who proclaim the dignity and sanctity of human life to stand up to this new and most egregious threat.  This is not a religious war or a culture war; it is a crime against humanity.  A just war needs no further justification.


The following books and articles were used to write this post:
Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

DeBerri, Edward P., James E. Hug, Peter J. Henriot, and Michael J. Schultheis. Catholic Social Teaching: Our Best Kept Secret. 4th Rev. and Expanded ed. New York: Orbis Books, 2003.

Moseley, Alexander. "Just War Theory." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. November 24, 2014. Accessed November 24, 2014. http://www.iep.utm.edu/justwar/.

New American Bible. New York, NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1971.

"Noble Qur'an #47" The Noble Qur'an. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://quran.com/.

O’Brien, David J., and Thomas A. Shannon, eds. Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage. 2010 Expanded ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2010.

Portalie, Eugene. "St. Augustine of Hippo." Catholic Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Robert Appleton Co.,1907. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://www.newadvent.org/

Rocca, Francis X. "Pope Talks Airstrikes in Iraq, His Health, Possible US Visit." National Catholic Reporter. Kansas City, MO: The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Co., August 18, 2014. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://ncronline.org/.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The 50 Year Argument

Editor Robert B. Silvers in the offices of The New York Review of Books


For more than fifty years now, The New York Review of Books has had its finger on the zeitgeist of American letters publishing every two weeks to a circulation of 135,000 subscribers.  On the occasion of its fiftieth year, Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi have put together a riveting documentary entitled, The 50 Year Argument (HBO, 2014) about the life of this enterprise and the editors, writers, and artists who contribute to its pages.  Robert B. Silvers, the journal’s long-serving editor, describes how he edits his writers as well as his method for deciding what are the most important and interesting books of the season.  At one point in the film, Silvers reads from the review’s first and only editorial:  The New York Review of Books does not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones.  Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation or to call attention to a fraud.”  This editorial, in its entirety, is quite a mission statement.

The review started during the New York publishing strike of 1963 when founders Silvers and Barbara Epstein, encouraged by their friends, decided it was the perfect time to publish a new book review.  As Silvers recounts in the film, the publishers were frantic for publicity for their upcoming books, and since newspapers were on strike, no advertisements could run to alert the reading public.  The ad buys alone could cover the start-up costs.  Elizabeth Hardwick, a friend of Silvers and someone he had worked with as an editor at Harper’s Magazine, had recently written about the decline of literary criticism in the newspapers of America, specifically The New York Times Book Review.  Here was an opportunity to really say something about contemporary culture, literature and the life of the mind.  Silvers says in the film that as long as they could pay the publisher, they could publish whatever they wanted.  They were not attempting to be part of that zeitgeist, but that is exactly what happened.

For a book lover, the scenery in the film is delicious, especially the offices where the editorial staff works.  Books line the walls in shelves that go floor to ceiling.  Then, there must be thousands of volumes stacked in every conceivable direction.  The editors and staff do not work in enclosed offices, but at desks surrounded by towers of books and papers.  We see Silvers marking up manuscripts, making calls to publishers and reviewers, and dictating emails and correspondence.  The brief flashes of him marking up the margins of a manuscript made me want to freeze frame and read his words.  He is a man in his element, a man who has been lucky enough to find his passion and his vocation and have them be conjoined in symbiotic bliss.  I wanted to walk into the screen and live in that office and never leave.

Beyond the scenery, and most important, are the people, dead and still living, who have populated the pages of the NYRB.  Craziest among them is Norman Mailer, taking on Susan Sontag, the feminist movement, Gore Vidal, and a swinging light bulb in no particular order of importance.  His wild hair, his extreme views, his casual toss off that he stabbed his wife and that Vidal was trying to paint him with the same brush as Charles Manson for his misogyny, all get ample screen time.  Mailer seems to want to out-Hemingway Hemingway, with his bold bravado and somewhat terrifying personality.  He is a literary pugilist crouched and ready, and when he and Vidal throw down in a clip from the Dick Cavett Show, it is fun to watch.  I do wonder how literary history will judge Mailer’s work.  Nevertheless, the feuds among the writers of the NYRB are legendary, as the film proves in several parts.

Centering on the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary, Scorsese and Tedeschi make use of the public readings and discussions that took place during 2013 and the eighteen months the film was in production.  Archival footage is also included with many of the writers who have passed featured with their words and opinions.  James Baldwin gives a rather potent denigration of the n-word, saying that it is the white man who invented the term, the white man who should fear the word itself because it is he who created the monster.  He says this with his wide, angry eyes, blowing cigarette smoke out of his nostrils like a dragon.  The history is apparent when Darryl Pinckney, a current NYRB writer, discusses how Baldwin influences his work, and how he once wrote a scathing review of one of the last publications of this most esteemed writer.  Not satisfied with simply publishing the piece in the review’s pages, he approached Baldwin at a party in his honor and asked him if he had read the piece.  Pinckney is astounded himself at his own audacity, and reassures the audience that he managed to take back some of his misperception when he reviewed two posthumous volumes of Baldwin’s collected works on the pages of the NYRB at the behest of Epstein and Silvers.

Joan Didion takes center stage when the discussion shifts to some of the groundbreaking journalism mounted by Silvers and the review.  Specifically, she wrote about the Central Park jogging case, where a band of young black men allegedly rampaged through the park one night and attacked several people, including a white jogger who was beaten and raped nearly to death.  The men’s confessions were coerced and they suffered intimidation and public condemnation before they were exonerated with DNA evidence decades later.  Didion, for her part, smelled a rat in the proceedings, and reported as much in the pages of the review.  One suspect was fourteen years old, his name splashed across the newspapers at the time, although he was never charged.  In the film, Didion is presented in all her eccentric glory, still sharp and intense after years of excellent witnessing, reporting, writing and surviving through several personal tragedies, a true national treasure in American letters.

What is interesting about these writers’ interviews is how many of them talk about the magic of Silvers’ editorial hand.  There is no animosity, none of the “the editor screwed me” charges that writers often make.  In fact, many of them talk of how Silvers shepherded them through the writing process, sending them information and supporting materials, convincing them that they were capable of great art, great writing.  Zoe Heller calls the NYRB an educational force in her life, a light that enhances her intelligence often about subjects in which she thought she had little interest.  Pinckney discusses how he was basically unemployable as someone who preferred books and immersion in words, so his first job was as babysitter for founding editor Barbara Epstein’s children, until the day she pulled him aside and gave him a bound volume of the journal’s first year.  That lit the fire and made him embrace his life as a writer.  Epstein’s presence is felt throughout the film, her essence captured in photographs and memorabilia from the long history of the journal.  She died in 2006.  From its inception, the NYRB has had only two editors:  Epstein and Silvers, and now that she has passed, Silvers continues as the lone guardian of the institution.

The 50 Year Argument is a film that must be celebrated.  The New York Review of Books is a journal that must be revered.  Both are cultural treasures, and the excellent writing and insights gleaned from the pages of the review bi-monthly must be savored and preserved.  America has always been a country of hard work, of people pulling themselves up by the bootstraps (what are those anyway?), although I’m not always sure if this is true now.  We have never been known as an intellectual force.  May be during the time of Emerson and Thoreau, but certainly not consistently down through the ages.  The New York Review of Books flies in the face of that charge.  There is a mind-life in America, and it can be found on the NYRB pages.  There is magic happening there, and for a window into that world, one must see this film.